Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking
Presentation for the Religion and Popular Culture Unit at the American Academy of Religion meetings held online and in San Antonio, Texas on Monday, November 22nd 2021.
In his preface to the Brill Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, Michael Barkun writes that,
If we look at the most sweeping conspiracy theories, they insist that nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; and that everything is connected. Yet these salient characteristics are strikingly similar to the features of many religious belief systems. To be sure, this is not to say that religions are conspiracy theories, only that there are structural similarities that sometimes lead them to join hands.
But I fear that in our current social and political environment, only a few years after these words were published, Barkun’s claim seems very understated. Connections between religions and conspiracy theories are much stronger than is accurately communicated by the image of joined hands, not only because many American Christian evangelicals have fully embraced QAnon conspiracy theories, but also because the underlying vision of these three claims – “nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; everything is connected” – is very religious.
Rather than make such a connection tentatively, why not say that religions imagine worlds shot through with conspiracy? And why not say that conspiracy itself is a secularized theological concept? Although these questions may seem provocative, the sense of an intentional order behind appearances is essential to many, if not most, religions.
While following these connections, this presentation summarizes my current postdoctoral book project called “Critique of Conspiracism,” which aims to provide not only a descriptive analysis of major connections between conspiracy theories and religions, but to move beyond description and toward forms of critique and resistance that challenge the violent propensities of conspiratorial thinking. My aim in the project is to provide a critique of conspiratorial reason that neither takes up a position of superiority over conspiracy theorists nor dignifies the distorted and violent aspects of conspiratorial thinking.
Three Paradigms: Religious Studies, Critical Theory, and Political Theology
In order to do this, I use a combination of three methodological perspectives: the scholarly study of religion, contemporary critical theory, and the discourse on political theology. From the interdisciplinary study of religion, I follow the conversation on New Religious Movements and conspirituality. From critical theory, I draw upon the works of the most recent generation of the Frankfurt School – especially Rahel Jaeggi, Rainer Forst, Robin Celikates, and Titus Stahl. And from political theology I follow the notion that many secular modern concepts are secularized theological concepts that retain their theological structure even as their content secularizes.
Whereas scholars of religion can help us to see how conspiratorial thinking is entangled with religious convictions, the current generation of critical theorists can help scholars of conspiracism to better position themselves in critical relation to their object of study. Rather than approaching conspiracism with an air of value-neutrality (as if those who study conspiracy theories are superior to those who believe them), and rather than engage in dismissive forms of critique (that pathologize belief in conspiracy theories), I think that contemporary critical theory provides a paradigm that can address the problems of both proximity and distance. Although there are internal tensions between them, the works of Jaeggi, Forst, Celikates, and Stahl can illuminate how we are always already engaged in forms of social critique that pit certain normative orders and justification narratives against each other, and demand new forms of immanent critique that would avoid projecting outside criteria onto the inner workings of conspiratorial thinking.
One major challenge that a critical theory of conspiratorial reason ought to address is the fact that conspiracy theories themselves serve as a form of everyday social critique. Although we may not agree with their reasons, motivations, or conclusions, conspiracy theories do serve a social function by giving people language and narratives with which to address their political grievances and feelings of alienation. However, it is easy to oppose conspiracism while using the problematic forms of critique that define conspiracism itself, but more difficult to critique conspiracism in ways that challenge a hermeneutic of suspicion but remain critical.
Clarity about how one ought to understand and perform critique is essential for my project, and so, to clarify what makes a critique of conspiracism distinct from a conspiracy theory I intend to draw on figures like Max Horkheimer (who distinguishes between traditional theories that serve a status quo and critical theories that challenge society) and Michel Foucault (for whom critique is an encounter with difference that cannot be regulated or governed), all in order to push the limits of what counts as critique.
Finally, my methodological orientation takes up the paradigm of political theology, which I use as a lens through which to see how conspiracism relies upon secularized theological concepts, from apocalyptic patterns of tension and release to prophetic movements from promise to partial fulfilment. For scholars of political theology, the messianic, apocalyptic, and millenarian themes of Judaism and Christianity become secularized in modernity, and do so in ways that retain a theological structure even as the content of such structures becomes more secular.
However, a political theology of conspiracy has yet to appear, which is strange because the concept of conspiracy itself is based upon dynamics of secrecy, hiddenness, and revelation that have very theological resonances and histories. I suggest that political theology can contribute to the study and critique of conspiratorial thinking by highlighting how the underlying vision of conspiracy theories, defined by Barkun and others, is deeply theological – not least because conspiracy theories project relations of necessity onto contingencies, and impose meaning and order onto a world that is often complex and disordered.
Beyond this methodological approach, the main argument of my project is twofold:
Conspiratorial Uses of Time and History
On one hand, I argue that conspiracism makes use of temporal and historical categories by periodizing and assigning value to the past, present, and future in instrumental, manipulative, and often-abusive ways. As I argue in my book Postsecular History, many persuasive ways of periodizing time and history impose meaning and order onto the world using a combination of theological and political legitimation strategies. Conspiracy theories very often make use of past events by establishing tensions and suspending certain values in the present, while pointing forward to apocalyptic or utopian futures where promises and prophecies are said to be fulfilled.
For example, I see fascinating religious uses of temporal and historical categories in the prayer spoken by the so-called ‘QAnon Shaman’ during the events of January 6 2021. Throughout the prayer, Jacob Angeli combines Christian cosmologies with American political exceptionalism and repeatedly references classical characteristics of the Christian God. At the same time, by invoking the rebirth of the nation he attempts to resist a coming time when the “tyrants, communists, and globalists” will supposedly try to destroy America. This structural use of apocalyptic tensions is just as theological as the content of the prayer, and his use of light imagery and positive hope for the future bring him close to the category of ‘conspirituality’ developed by Ward and Voas.
On its own, it makes sense that the QAnon Shaman’s prayer has religious characteristics, but what is more interesting is how the same capture and release of apocalyptic tensions shows up in nonreligious manifestations of QAnon belief, such as the decoding of Q drops, the imperative to ‘follow the breadcrumbs,’ and the coming ‘storm’ wherein all will be revealed.
Conspiracism and Violence
Paying attention to how conspiracy theories use religious ways of configuring the past, present, and future is one half of my project. But the other half of my argument concerns the relationship between conspiracy theories and violence. I think that the propensity to violence within conspiracism is problematic because both “conspiracism” and “violence” are concepts that conceal their highly normative character under the guise of neutral description.
As I argue in my dissertation “Ontologies of Violence,” we cannot arrive at a meaningful concept of violence until we give an account of the value-laden boundaries that are violated in cases where violence is said to be done. There is no meaningful concept of violence without violable boundaries that demarcate something we think is important or worth preserving, and this means that violence is not a descriptive concept, but a normative one that rests upon an account of what ought to be the case, rather than on something that merely is the case.
So too with conspiracy theories and the worldviews they play key roles in. There can be no meaningful concept of conspiracy until we provide clear criteria for distinguishing between different forms of narrative meaning-making. It is not a matter of fact, but instead a matter of normative contestation, whether a particular narrative qualifies as a conspiracy theory.
These two arguments draw from my dissertation on violence and book project on time and history, and they connect with each other in interesting ways that I am eager to explore. On one hand, conspiratorial thinking uses theopolitical periodizations of time to configure the past, present, and future. On the other hand, conspiratorial thinking has a tendency to lead toward violence, but it also challenges the social narratives we use to identify violence.
For example, these tensions are evident in the competing names that have been used in the popular media for the events of January 6th 2021, from terms like ‘rally’ and ‘riot’ to ‘attack’ and ‘insurrection.’ The contested language we use to identify what occurred on January 6th is intimately connected with disputes about legitimacy and authority that inform our uses of terms like ‘conspiracy’ and ‘violence.’
Violence, Religion, and Conspiratorial Thinking
In my work I want to explore links between conspiracism’s instrumental use of the past and its tendency to lead toward violence. To do this, I turn to the work of Amarnath Amarasingam. Amarasingam notes that jihadists and neo-Nazis tend to get their information from conspiracist sources, but he is quick to caution that it is a more complicated matter to draw direct causal links between conspiracism and the commission of violent acts. He suggests that polarization and distorted news sources both play influential roles in the adoption of conspiracy beliefs, and argues that “individuals have a difficult time making sense of major world events, and high-anxiety situations, if the magnitude of the cause and the magnitude of the event are not somehow equal.” Put differently, he suggests that conspiracy theories try to force a relationship of parity between the causes and effects of political events, so that – for example – the terrible and wide-reaching effects of the pandemic would have a similar grandiosity to its supposed causes. In general, Amarasingam argues that conspiracy theories “can be linked to an overall view that one holds the truth, is being persecuted by outside enemies, and that salvation exists at the end of this difficult road.”
Here is a major connection between conspiratorial thinking and violence. If it is the case that conspiratorial thinking promotes narratives of deception, victimhood, and persecution (real or perceived), then it makes sense to think this will lead to a sense that there are enemies everywhere, which leads further toward a justification of violence in response to perceived threats. Through narratives of persecution and misinformation, conspiratorial thinking can become a contributing factor in the process of radicalization to violence. According to Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, conspiracy theories are an ‘extremism multiplier,’ but it is so important to note that for Amarasingam and many of his sources it is too easy to say that ‘conspiracy theories lead to violence.’ His reticence to provide a simple linear story about conspiracy theories and violence is in continuity with the fact that conspiracy theories themselves tend to provide single-cause attributions of meaning that simplify things that are really complex.
Drawing from Bartlett and Miller, Amarasingam suggests that “conspiracy theories contribute to the idea that violence is the only remaining option for survival” and also “create the impression amongst members that they are an embattled minority, holding onto a vital truth that can save and salvage society…” There is something about conspiracy theories that leads to the creation of an atmosphere of enmity that then allows for the justification of acts of violence.
Amarasingam’s solutions to the problems of conspiracy and violence match the fact that the problem with conspiracism is that it provides easy answers to complex questions. He suggests that although there are no easy answers, there are still some remedial strategies to counter the ways that conspiracism provides conditions for violence. These solutions include “pro-social initiatives” that make governments more transparent and open, and educational initiatives that foster critical thinking – but we are all no doubt aware of the limits of transparency and education in efforts to combat conspiratorial thinking. He points out that conspiracy theories have a corrosive effect on public trust, and this is so much more evident in the past year as pandemic and vaccine conspiracy theories have taken hold where populations do not trust their government or medical establishments.
In my project I do not intend to engage in debates about religion and violence. Instead, I focus on how conspiracism – as a way of seeing the world – is defined by very religious ways of configuring time and history, and how conspiracism is uniquely predisposed to violence in ways that are connected to its use and abuse of temporal and historical categories. If we follow Barkun’s three characteristics – “nothing happens by accident; nothing is as it seems; everything is connected” – we can see the tensions that define the world that the conspiracy theorist disavows. My critique of conspiratorial reason will begin with an analysis of how conspiracy theories promise to resolve existential tensions, but do not meaningfully or sustainably resolve them. For such an analysis, we must consider the existential tensions that conspiracy theories attempt to resolve, and one approach to this is to simply invert Barkun’s three characteristics. If we do this, we can see that the world that the conspiracy theorist denies is one where accidents occur, where things are exactly as they appear, and where things are quite disconnected. Part of taking conspiracism seriously, as a way of interpreting the world, requires that we look closely at what conspiracy theories implicitly deny.
In light of these connections, and in conclusion, I can say that my ongoing research question is: If accidents, appearances, and fragmentation represent the world that the conspiracy theorist denies, and if conspiracism performs this denial through theopolitical configurations of time and the violent construction of enemies, then what are the necessary preconditions for a critique of conspiracism that could allow us to challenge and resist conspiratorial narratives without reproducing the problematic strategies of persuasion that define conspiracy theories in the first place?
 Michael Barkun, “Preface” in the Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion. Ed. Asbjørn Dyrendal, Egil Asprem, and David G. Robertson (Leiden: Brill, 2019), x.
 See Charlotte Ward and David Voas, “The Emergence of Conspirituality” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26.1 (2011): 103-121.
 See Rahel Jaeggi, Critique of Forms of Life. Trans Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2018). Rainer Forst, Normativity and Power: Analyzing Social Orders of Justification. Trans. Ciaran Cronin (London: Oxford University Press, 2017). Robin Celikates, Critique as Social Practice: Critical Theory and Self-Understanding. Trans. Naomi van Steenbergen (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). Titus Stahl, Immanent Critique (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
 Michel Foucault, “What is Critique?” in The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth (Brooklyn: Semiotexte, 1997) and Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: Seabury, 1972).
 Maxwell Kennel, Postsecular History: Political Theology and the Politics of Time (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-85758-5
 Transcript: “Let’s say a prayer. Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space. Thank you heavenly father for gracing is with this opportunity to stand up for our God-given inalienable rights. Thank you heavenly father for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into the building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists that this is our nation and not theirs, that we will not allow the America – the American way, of the United States of America – to go down. Thank you divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God, for filling this chamber with your white light and love, your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ. Thank you divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God for blessing each and every one of us here and now. Thank you divine creator God for surrounding [us] with the divine omnipresent white light of love and protection, peace and harmony. Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you, in Christ’s holy name we pray.” Source: https://www.newyorker.com/news/video-dept/a-reporters-footage-from-inside-the-capitol-siege
 Maxwell Kennel, “Ontologies of Violence: Jacques Derrida, Mennonite Pacifist Epistemology, and Grace M. Jantzen’s Death and the Displacement of Beauty.” PHD Dissertation. McMaster University, Department of Religious Studies, 2021. https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/handle/11375/26484
 Amarnath Amarasingam, “The Impact of Conspiracy Theories and How to Counter Them: Reviewing the Literature on Conspiracy Theories and Radicalization to Violence” in Jihadist Terror: New Threats, New Responses. Ed. Anthony Richards (London: IB Tauris, 2019).
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 31.
 Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, The Power of Unreason: Conspiracy Theories, Extremism, and Counter-Terrorism (London: Demos, 2010). They write: “While it is not possible to demonstrate direct causal links between conspiracy theories and extremism, our findings suggest that the acceptance of conspiracy theories in contexts of extremism often serves as a ‘radicalizing multiplier’, which feeds back into the ideologies, internal dynamics and psychological processes of the group. They hold extremist groups together and push them in a more extreme and sometimes violent direction.” (4-5).
 Amarasingam, “The Impact of Conspiracy Theories,” 33.
 On the limits of ‘transparency’ see Mark Fenster, “Against the Cure” in Michael Butter and Maurus Reinkowski (Eds.), Conspiracy Theories in the United States and the Middle East: A Comparative Approach (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), 333-344.
 On this compare Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. 4th Ed. (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017) with William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (London: Oxford University Press, 2009).